Can Europe Make It?

How to address apathy and avoid confusion

The post-1989 generation is the ‘shallow generation’ because of its proclivity for apathy. How can this inherently political problem be addressed?

Quinn Coffey
16 March 2014
'Apathy is not a healthy ideology.' Flickr/Keoki Seu. Some rights reserved.

'Apathy is not a healthy ideology.' Flickr/Keoki Seu. Some rights reserved.We have a problem. That is to say, we have a malady - something that goes slightly beyond a problem, and yet it isn’t quite a lost cause. Like most illnesses, modern society offers us a host of treatments. Some of these treatments mask our symptoms and let us get on with our lives as if nothing is the matter. Other, more radical treatments, strike at the heart of the disease and cause some temporary suffering in order to promote a long-term cure.

This problem is that of apathy, and its external manifestation, confusion. Apathy, that is, the state of indifference, lets us go about our lives without much in the way of critical thinking. Apathy allows us, for example, to watch a political debate and not find it odd that neither side has actually answered a fairly simple question, but rather has spent the past five minutes touting the party line and hoping to God that he/she doesn’t accidentally give his/her real opinion. Apathy forces us to blame our crap job prospects on the President or Prime Minister because somebody on TV told us to. It makes us believe that taxes, immigrants, and socialists are gnawing away at our freedom. Worst of all, apathy conditions us to exchange empathy for greed, and rewards us for it. It allows us to blot out every aspect of reality that isn’t immediately appealing to the senses…it brings us iPhones instead of job security; apps to manage our diets, but not health insurance.

We’re in a state of paranoia and confusion and we don’t even know it. Not just because the economy has gone to pot and there are scary terrorists out to get us, but because we are lost. We have been lost for so long now that we no longer recognize the paths that lead back home. It’s all-new; it’s uncharted. Some of us try to reach back into the past to hold on to traditions that we think may lead back home. Some of us think that by reviving these vestiges of our imagined past we will suddenly snap back into the way things were. But the signposts have become corroded, and the only message that remains is obscured by rust and the dirt in our eyes. 

Our politicians, for their part, appear to enjoy this state of confusion. I can’t help but think they’re having a great time laughing at us as we bump into every corner of the maze they’ve created for us. Realistically speaking though, we are the authors of our own predicament. (I don’t believe that secret societies and the elites that they spawn have any more power than we give them. The whole reason they have to have secret societies and arcane rituals is to pretend like they’re special; if they were any different than us they wouldn’t need so much encouragement.)

So, what are we so afraid of? I grew up hearing that talking about politics and religion within families wasn’t a good idea… ‘don’t upset your aunt and uncle, they don’t share our views’. Eventually, that mindset was extended to friends, co-workers, teachers, etc., so that gradually none of us were talking about anything that mattered. Even the news stopped debating issues in any meaningful way. 

Fox News and MSNBC give airtime to their own variety of nuts, while CNN tries so hard not to upset anyone that it ends up avoiding meaningful debate entirely. What remains is akin to a professional wrestling match in which both sides use their signature moves to fight one another in a well-orchestrated and, ultimately pointless fight.

Meanwhile moderates, who are really guiltier of apathy than anyone, are so terrified of confrontation that they simply lay back and let the comforting waves of apathy wash over them.  In the process, their sense of morality, conscience, and pride is slowly drowned out until the only audible sound is the roar of the 24-hour news cycle – recycling buzzword after buzzword until everything loses meaning. 

Today on the radio I heard my generation referred to as the ‘shallow generation’ because of our proclivity for the superficial. We text, we don’t talk.  We are noncommittal.  We pursue the liberal arts. We have broken down racial, sexual, linguistic, etc., barriers of identity and replaced them with corporately managed materialism. (Try to go to a shoe store and buy neutral toned sneakers – the shoe isle looks like a tropical bird sanctuary). We desperately want to define who we are as individuals and we now have the material means to do so.

The downside to this culture of instant gratification is that we have lost our patience. For the first time in history we can chose to define ourselves in any way we like, yet we don’t seem to bother to. All of the struggles of the past - the violence, the hate, the love – have been branded onto t-shirts and back tattoos. They have become rhetorical tools that are used in ways they were never intended. 

However, this freedom of association and freedom of self-definition has not corresponded with a freer consciousness. Rather, it would seem that we are forever bound to the structural limitations of the zeitgeist; one in which the primary modes of discourse are defined by the dichotomy between the left and the right.    

In fact, it would seem that partisanship has engulfed our consciousness. I’ll give you a very practical and immediately observable example. Some of you reading this right now agree with me and some of you don’t; others will think this is nonsense or bad writing or otherwise. However, all of you will immediately place a label on what you think my political leanings are and you will base your support or opposition almost entirely on that belief.

And what clues you in to this suspicion about my political inclinations? The politics of language. In fact, to illustrate this point even further, here is a short word association game. Give a thought as to your immediate gut reaction to the following words, without thinking about them any more deeply than you would any other word you come across:

tax breaks for the rich; welfare; abortion; evangelical; socialism; social welfare; immigration; Islam; gay; God; evolution; guns; pancake.

I threw that last one in there as a joke, but hopefully you get the point. We have become so indoctrinated by our politics that we have immediate, and often visceral, reactions to these words without even thinking about what they really mean to us or to our society. We are more tribal than ever. The politics of language force us to believe that liberals support: abortion, socialism, social welfare, immigration, gay rights, etc. and that conservatives support: tax breaks, guns, God, corporations, etc. And sure, sometimes when you have deeper conversations with someone who doesn’t share your views, it turns out that they really and truly support these beliefs. But I strongly suspect that most of the time it is merely a matter of miscommunication or confusion.

‘Minorities take advantage of social welfare…I definitely support my tribe’s efforts to gut Welfare…I mean sure I’ve been on unemployment for six months, but the tribal leaders tell me that socialism is bankrupting the country.’


‘I definitely support a living wage…I absolutely support my tribe in this…but I usually hire illegal immigrants to work on my house; they work for nothing (don’t tell my neighbours!)’

The point is, we are freer than ever before to be the people we want to be, yet for some reason we are afraid to let anyone else know about it. Don’t we want politicians who speak their minds? Don’t we want to turn on the TV and see people speak from their hearts? Isn’t the world more complex than left/right?

As long as we keep chasing our tails, the political leadership can do whatever it wants. Apathy has removed our ability to hold them accountable. There is far more common ground than the TV would have us believe.

Use this freedom. Define your beliefs according to what you think and feel, not according to red or blue. Don’t be afraid to disagree with someone; hear each other out.

Ultimately, the only thing apathy fears is confrontation. It’s up to you to stare it in the face and show it that the humanity is capable of tremendous strength and bravery; we learn, we adapt, we fight.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData